The Office of P-20 Initiatives

Building the Future

Engineering workshop promotes early awareness and readiness for college

STEADY NOW GEAR UP students delicately construct their solar-powered car, hoping for victory in the day's final races.

To explain why size matters when it comes to engineering, Joey Donzis rounded up his young assistants and organized them into two circles, one large and one small.

On Donzis' count, 14 eager eighth graders created the moving parts of two human gears, the smaller circle of students rotating much faster than the larger circle.

Getting students moving and physically involved with what they're learning helps them to understand the information better, said Donzis, education specialist with iTEC, UTSA's Interactive Technology Experience Center, part of the College of Engineering. Activity combined with academics is all part of the plan for UTSA's P-20 Initiatives GEAR UP II workshops.

The second year of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, a federal grant given to the San Antonio Independent School District, provides at-risk students early exposure to concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields and helps promote a college-going population among low-income families. The first GEAR UP program, held last summer, focused on leadership.

"We're teaching kids about college and engineering," Donzis said of this summer's focus. "We explain: This is why you should go to college."

Though the program is educational, Donzis understands the importance of making activities entertaining to encourage participation and increase information retention.

"I want to show them that this is the world around you and how you can have fun with it," he said. "I'm trying to give them opportunities I didn't have as a kid."

The SAISD partnered with UTSA to develop a program aimed at helping communities achieve academic success, a goal that is already showing results. Activities help students prepare for required standardized tests and have been increasing student graduation rates. The grant will follow the same cohort of students all the way through their senior year of high school.

"We're losing kids in middle school," said Francisco Aranda, a college readiness coach for GEAR UP. He stressed the importance of introducing educational programs early to prevent low-income, first-generation students in underrepresented demographics from becoming marginalized.

He was especially pleased about the number of young women at the event.

"We're trying to empower these young girls to let them know they can be engineers in a male-dominated field," Aranda said.

Donzis, who developed the summer Solar Hot Rod Workshop, used the human gear demonstration to show the ways students could construct their project for the day: a solar panel car, to be built for either strength or speed.

After explaining how to build the car frame and attach the motor to the solar panel, Donzis set the students loose in teams of two to plan and build their cars. Later, they would race them to determine the fastest car. The cars built for strength would compete for the record in amount of weight pulled.

Particularly important to Donzis was that before building their cars, the students should understand how solar power works. He spent the first half of the day showing how solar energy can be converted into electricity. That way, he said, students would be able to focus on engineering the cars rather than wondering how the sun is used to run them.

"It's no longer magic; it's science," he said. "We're talking about solar energy because it's finally a viable energy. It could be used in these kids' future."

The students worked together, discussing and debating the best way to build their cars. Donzis offered advice to the teams as he observed construction and answered questions. He encouraged the students to walk around and look at the other teams' cars.

"Engineers share ideas," he said, "because they build stuff to make the world better, not worse."

Students were able to use what they learned in the workshop right away during this year's GEAR UP finale, held in late July. An interactive technology day at UTSA's Main Campus was open to all students who participated in events throughout the summer.

"The students were able to go to the iTEC laboratories and were able to participate in four activities including robotics, aviation, forensics and renewable energy," said Dennis Gonzalez, project director for GEAR UP II.

Planning is already under way for next summer, Gonzalez said. The new activity will be developed based on the surveys from this year's events.